Fare Minded

The Secret Ingredient? Tradition

Hyun Hee Han at Kansai Sushi in Vienna, which has mastered the basics of Japanese cuisine.
Hyun Hee Han at Kansai Sushi in Vienna, which has mastered the basics of Japanese cuisine. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2007

These days, authenticity is relative. There's truly authentic, academically authentic, facsimile authentic, faux authentic and just plain fake. Vienna's Kansai Sushi, which bills itself as an "Authentic Japanese Restaurant," may not be strictly Japanese by the cook -- chef-owner Kanghee Han is Korean but was raised in Japan -- but he's Japanese by the book. His restaurant is meticulously obedient to culinary tradition.

That is most important when it comes to sushi and sashimi. Ill-cut fish has less flavor as well as less aesthetic value, and Han not only trims his fish impeccably, he attends to the details of quality. He once unwrapped every package of tuna looking for chu-toro, the mid-fatty portion, and denuded all the flounder for a small bowl of engawa, the delicate fin covering. He observes the classic proportion of seafood to rice, in which the fish lies atop and over the sides, decorously embracing the rice, not lewdly stretched out at equal length. The fish is iced but not icy, brought out from the refrigerator only in small portions.

Best of all, Han knows rice. Rice is part of what might be called in Cajun style the "holy trinity" of Japanese cooking -- of Japanese culture, in fact -- the others being soy products and tea. In many forms, these prime ingredients are given the honorific prefix "o-" or "go-". Correctly seasoned rice, called shari (plain cooked rice is "gohan"), is crucial to good sushi: rinsed, soaked and rested before cooking to eliminate the starchy stickiness all too familiar these days; flavored with rice vinegar, salt and a touch of sugar; and kept just slightly above room temperature. (One reason women were traditionally not allowed to become sushi chefs was that their hands were supposedly too warm, a paradox that apparently didn't bother those chefs when their wives made dinner.) Han's shari is a pleasure, a true partner to the fish.

Similarly, nabeyaki udon, another apparently simple dish generally abused in this country, depends less on the noodles or choice of greens than it does on the broth, a simmered and strained dashi (a staple ingredient made from dried bonita) with a touch of mirin and soy sauce that tastes very different from the chicken broth or even water and soy often substituted. Han's version has a fine flavor that soaks into the fat wheat udon as you work your way through.

Han has worked at a number of area restaurants, and it shows. His tempura frying is first-rate, crisp and greaseless, and the fresh shrimp is an obvious improvement over the bland prawns that often turn up in spider rolls. "Calamari fly" is not a typo but a sly pun on dialect jokes: tempura'd legs that seem ready to take off and a vegetable tempura that has been known to tempt even small children.

The gyoza are among the rare disappointments, pork-veggie dumplings that the Japanese traditionally pan-fry and then steam (the Chinese sometimes do it the other way around). The gyoza at Kansai appear to be deep-fried, with a crunch to the wrapper seam and a bit of oil lingering in the dough, and not much flavor to the filling.

Kansai is the name of Han's home region, and appropriately, there is a lot of family-style and street food on the menu, including stir-fried soba or udon -- the Jack Sprat and well-padded wife of Japanese noodles -- with various toppings; chirashi gozen, a sort of multi-course banquet portioned out for one; pork and chicken katsu, the battered cutlets served with a thick Worcestershire-based sauce (also the dressing for yakisoba); and yakitori or skewered chicken. Only in formal restaurants are there "courses," so most dishes here are served simultaneously. Don't feel as if you need to finish one thing, even the soup, before another. And the portions are generous -- a whole chicken breast katsu, not a half -- so order slowly.

Like most sushi bars, Kansai has its own repertoire of specialty rolls. Many are variations on generally familiar themes, although the "Pocahontas roll" of cream cheese, asparagus, flying-fish roe, smelt roe, cucumber and seaweed strands is a new one. (The "American roll" is, not surprisingly, deep-fried.) But when the basic ingredients are so good, it's hard to know why you'd want to cover them up.

Kansai Sushi 128 E. Maple Ave., Vienna Phone:703-319-1300 Kitchen hours: Open Monday-Saturday, 11:30-2:30 and 5-10 Prices: A la carte sushi and sashimi $2.75-$13.50; entrees $9.95-$21.95 Wheelchair access: Good

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